“Summer is gone with all its infinite wealth, and still nature is genial to man. Though he no longer bathes in the stream, or reclines on the bank, or plucks berries on the hills, still he beholds the same inaccessible beauty around him.” – Henry David Thoreau.
Most would be surprised, but trekking in the Indian Himalayas can be an all season affair depending upon what really tingles your senses. Apart from the countless treks in summers all across the Himalayas, the onset of winters can also present some unparalleled trekking experiences for those tired of the city buzz. The options may be lower, but the serene beauty of mountains enveloped in a thick blanket of snow cannot be seen anytime else. You don’t just get to witness the diverse winter topography of the Himalayas but also have the leisure of having the trail mostly to yourselves as far less people decide to take on the Himalayas during winters.
The Kedarkantha Trek and the Chandrashila Trek, both in Uttarakhand are two such spectacular treks which give you the opportunity to camp by pristine alpine lakes, walk through the magnificent forests of Pines, Cyprus, Maple, Oak; and the most thrilling of all, boast of a winter summit of a 13,000 feet Himalayan Peak. It may sound daunting but both treks are fairly easy and perfect for first time trekkers. One can either hire a guide from the village at the trailhead who can arrange all the camping gear, or if one wants to play it safe, get in touch with the numerous trekking outfits for a complete package. The village folk usually know the place the best, plus it’s great to contribute to the local economy.
Click here for Chandrashila Winter Trek pictures: Chandrashila Winter Trek, December 2013
Chandrashila Trek is usually done as a twin trek – a combination of a short hike to Deoria Tal in the first day, followed by a slightly more challenging trek to the summit itself in the next. The trailhead for Deoria Tal lies in a small hamlet called Sari which is at a distance of 13 kms from Ukhimath in Rudraprayag district. Situated about 415 kms from Delhi, the reasonably comfortable drive to Ukhimath takes you through Rishikesh, Srinagar, Rudraprayag, Agustmuni and Kund. Once at Sari, follow the well trodden path for little less than 2 kms to reach the natural lake of Deoria Tal at a height of 8000 feet. Nestled between thick forest and meadows, the lake provides a stunning campsite to spend the night and to allow your body acclimatize to the higher altitude. The reflection of the imposing Chaukhamba peak over the calm waters of the lake is quite talked about and photographers spend considerable time to capture that perfect image. As the sun sets, sit back and savour the unforgettable sight of the snow clad peaks turning fiercely orange as if on fire. Spending the night at the shores of the lake is highly recommended but if you are not comfortable camping, you may also get a room at the Forest Rest House situated very close to the lake depending upon availability.
The second leg of the trek starts from Chopta, popularly known as the ‘Mini Switzerland of India’, a small village in Rudraprayag district known for its undulating meadows and waterfalls dotting the entire region. Chopta is about 20 kms drive from Sari and you will start noticing the first patches of snow and glazed sheet of ice enroute. The trail to the summit of Chandrashila Peak starts from here and takes you through the revered Tungnath Temple – the highest Shiv temple in the world at 12,000 feet. The entire trail until Tungnath is well laid out and stone paved, but is a steady uphill trek of 3.5 kms. Couple of hours into the trek, leave the tree line behind and notice the snow covered meadows all around and the majestic massif of Chaukhamba Peak (23,400 ft.) always looking over you on your left.
Tungnath is steeped in history, legend has it that it was built by the ‘Pandavas’ over 1,000 years ago. It is one of the five ‘Panch Kedar’ temples located in Uttarakhand, second only to Kedarnath in the pecking order. But during winters, the symbolic image of the deity and the temple priests are moved to the winter seat at Mukumath, about 10 kms. before Chopta. This means that it is largely devoid of the pilgrimage rush. Take a well deserved break at the temple and spot the lone peak of Chandrashila to the East. It is a steep climb of 1.5 kms to the summit but every muscle pained will be all worth it once you reach the top. From the summit of Chandrashila peak, literally meaning ‘Moon Rock’, at a height of 13,100 feet, you get splendid panoramic views of the Himalayan range comprising snow peaks of Nanda Devi, Panch Chuli, Bandarpoonch, Kedarnath, Chaukhamba, Neelkanth, and also the Garhwal valley. According to a popular legend, Lord Rama meditated here after defeating the demon-king Ravana, while another legend says that the moon-god Chandra spent time here in penance. A small shrine dedicated to Ganga sits pretty at the summit but closes during winters at the same time as Tungnath temple. Let your cameras go on an overdrive before beginning the descent back to Chopta via the same trail.
Kedarkantha Peak Trek
Click here for Kedarkantha Winter Trek pictures: Kedarkantha Winter Trek, December 2014
The trek to the Kedarkantha Peak starts from the quiet village of Sankri, about 435 kms from Delhi via Musoorie, Naogaon, Purola, Mori and Naitwar. Sitting precariously on a hill side, the isolation and the laid back attitude of the village provides a perfect setting to unwind after a long drive and to prepare for your upcoming trek. Apart from a couple of modest privately run hotels, one can also stay at the guesthouse maintained here and open throughout the year by Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN).
The first day of the trek takes you to the now frozen lake of Juda Ka Talab situated about 4 hours to the South of the village. Though advisable to take a guide along with you, the route which is stone paved for most of the part, can be figured out by a regular trekker after some due diligence. The initial hike is marginally steep but gradually levels out before rising again for the last 30 minutes. The entire trail is over a brown carpet of leaves and under the shadows of spindly Maple and Oak trees. But as you gain altitude, be ready to encounter the first patches of snow sometimes almost a foot deep. The suggesting sound of snow crunching under your boots really prepares you for what lies ahead in the trek.
Juda Ka Talab, about 2750 meters above sea level remains hidden till the time you are almost directly upon it. The sight of a frozen lake with fine hairline cracks running across it and sprinkled snow on top is something to behold. The lake starts freezing around mid December as the sun hardly seeps through the surrounding dense forest. Under right conditions, the thick sheet of ice over the lake even allows you to walk over it but tread carefully and always stay near the shore. The plentiful clearing around the lake provides you a dream-like site to spend the first night of the trek.
About 4 kms from the lake is the second campsite, usually referred to as Kedarkantha Base Camp, situated at the foot of Kedarkantha Peak. The trail heads further south into the dense forest and climbs steadily for the first hour then gradually easing up. Virtually the entire landscape bathed in white, the trail cuts across couple of small clearings and some abandoned shepherd huts. With most of the water sources frozen around the Base Camp, it helps to have a guide and his expertise in finding a reliable supply of water during such conditions. A bounty of dry firewood lies scattered all around to light a campfire as the summit of Kedarkantha Peak now clearly visible calls you from a distance.
It is advisable to start the 3rd and the final day of your trek early as you will be descending all the way back to Sankri after summiting the peak. Climbing to the summit and back to Base Camp should be done before noon because as it gets hotter, snow turns into slush, making it slightly trickier to walk on. The trail to the summit is over a rising ridge for majority of the part and a continuous 2 hour uphill climb sometimes wading through knee deep cotton snow. As if awarding you for all the efforts, the summit at a height of 12,800 feet offers some breathtaking 360 degree views as far as your eyes can take you. Spread like a garland all around are the Bandarpoonch, Yamunotri and Gangotri range of Himalayas and the distinct towering Swargarohini Peak (6,252 mts.) and the Black Peak (6,387 mts.). Spend some time at the summit and soak in the grandeur of the mighty Himalayas before making your way back to Sankri.
The humbling experience that comes with witnessing the magnificence at such scale only strengthens your decision to plan another trek in the Himalayas. Just how incredible and invigorating the experience of being exclusively with nature can be, can only be realised when you leave your cubicles behind and embark on the ultimate adventure in the lap of the Himalayas, be it summers or winters.